I might as well be hunting SheSquatch. Queen Shamiram of Assyria is nimble and elusive, yet enormously powerful. Like her sisters of blood-legend, Zenobia, Jezebel, or Cleopatra, it is hard to know where truth ends and fiction begins.
ling shot (verb): To be slung or flinged.
Two columns rise from Urfa’s citadel.
In the center of Urfa is a citadel. On the top of the citadel are two columns. From between these two columns, Abraham was slingshot.
That is the story anyway.
Urfa is a different town by day.
The night before, when we filed though Urfa’s bazar and dergah, it was a cacophony. Buyers and sellers haggled. Families socialized and ate. Hollering, honking, munching, braying and wailing filled the sultry air. Every space was contested. Tanner was wide-eyed. “Welcome to the Middle East,” I had shouted. Dir balak! “Be careful!”
I stand in a paved courtyard. Surrounding me is a cluster of dwellings constructed of mudbrick (or adobe). A discovery like this is not unusual in a region where wood is scarce and temperatures are extreme. What is odd is the way in which the overhead space is closed. Bricks are stacked in concentric circles that rise upwardly from thick stub walls. They culminate in a tiara made of stone that crowns a tiny chimney hole. I marvel. These are tepees of mud, sedentary versions of the pastoralist’s tent.
It is hot. The breeze blowing across the Mesopotamian plain carries no refreshment, only dust.
I do what comes naturally in this part of the world: I recline in the shade of a goat-hair tent and sip hot çay. The tea is served in a tulip glass lacking a handle, so I sip carefully but quickly. I hang on the rim to avoid burning my fingers. My companions do the same. The glasses dance.
The mound emerges through the haze.
“There it is!” I shout to my companions. They respond with the kind of noises that men make when they have seen one site too many. They know where this is going.
The bearded saints look down. Rows and rows of them. They are lean, dark-eyed, and, despite their great antiquity, ephemeral. From their vantage point high on the walls of the Church of the Holy Cross, they are supreme. This is their domain. I look up. My eyes meet theirs. I feel small.
We approach the church that Gagik built. Except Gagik didn’t really build it. He commissioned an architect-monk named Manuel to do the hard work. Of the 10th century complex erected on the island of Aghtamar, the only structure that survives is the Church of the Holy Cross. We are fortunate. Manuel’s labor is a triumph of medieval Armenian architecture.
We jump from the launch to the landing. Motion arrested, I stand on the concrete slab and try to imagine how Aghtamar, the island stronghold of King Gagik, would have appeared to a tenth century visitor.
The beautiful princess lifted the light and he swam for it. The island where Tamar stood was distant, but with the light as his guide, the peasant boy had direction. On this night, however, the forbidden relationship was discovered. The beacon was smashed to the ground. Disoriented by the sudden loss of signal, the lad swam on and on in the dark. At last he became exhausted. He began to slip beneath the waves. He cried out her name, “Agh Tamar!” These words, his last, were carried away by the wind.
The mystery is not why some people cannot read.
The marvel is that any of us can.
To illustrate this, put your fingers in your ears and look at this picture.
It is every writer’s nightmare. Schulz was dead for eleven years before he was published. And when he was finally published, he was unreadable.
The ridge abruptly rises near the lake’s edge. It is more than a half mile long and hundreds of feet high. The flat ground extending from its base (undoubtedly a flood plain from more remote times) renders the promontory all the more stunning. Walls and towers cling to the rock like barnacles. I wonder why these man-made constructions were thought necessary. The plunge to the flat is so vertical, so awful, that the ridge ably protects itself.
The air is thick where the Bendimahi meets the Gulf of Ercis. Deprived of energy (and all hope of escape), the mountain stream creeps reluctantly across the floodplain before slipping under the waves of Lake Van. Slender reeds bend to watch the demise. It is not a unique spectacle. Gravity forces every stream in the region to the same end. The basin simply has no exit. Van is an endorheic sea, a marine cul-de-sac. I lean forward, ponder this fact, and look in vain for the terminus. Between the mud, reeds, and island clumps I cannot tell where river ends and sea begins.
About the time of the Apostle Paul, Pliny the Elder carried the eagles of Rome. He mistakenly believed that Lake Van was a part of the Tigris River system. Since he could not locate an exit for the water, he surmised that the lake was drained by a hidden underground cave. A special fish lived here.
The road unwinds outside our vehicle. We do the same on the inside, quietly resting after our experience of Ağrı Dağı. My head bumps against the glass, eyes half closed. This, despite the extraordinary landscape.
Just to be clear, it is not my idea. Neither is it the idea of the six. But they go along. All of us go along. This much cannot be denied, although I am certain that some might try to when we get home. Curiosity, more than anything else, is the motivator.
After a brief rest, we pack up the High Camp. The sun is warm but I am too worn down to appreciate it. The two and a half hour descent to Low Camp is a blur. My trekking poles become crutches.
Mustafa’s stew is quite fine. Unless you are ill.
Nothing appeals to Wilkerson. His condition is deteriorating. He finished the acclimatization hike and came to the mess tent at suppertime. However, he is unable to eat anything substantial for a second day.
I think I understand what Viesturs means when he writes, “The mountain decides whether you climb or not.” And yet, I’m sure he would also recognize that there is a point at which the body, apart from the mountain or the mind, dictates a “stop.”